Here’s my second post for the 9th annual What A Character Blogathon, which is being co-hosted by Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee at Outspoken And Freckled, and Aurora at Once Upon A Screen. Be sure to visit their sites to read all of the entries. I can’t wait to read them all myself.
Bernard Hepton is not only one of my favourite actors of all time, but he was also one of the best character actors in the business. He’s one of those actors who has your attention at all times whenever he’s in a scene, even if he’s not got any dialogue and is just sitting there in the corner watching others.While Bernard primarily worked in television and on the stage, he was also in a few films over the years too, he’s quite memorable as Thorpe in Get Carter(1971).
Bernard Hepton became a household name here in the UK due to his performances in the hit TV series Colditz(1972-1974), Secret Army(1977-1979), I,Claudius(1976), Tinker,Tailor,Soldier,Spy(1979) and its sequel Smiley’s People(1982). He’s also well remembered for playing Sam Toovey in the chilling 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman In Black.
Bernard with Kate Beckinsale in Emma(1996). Image source IMDb.
My first intro to Bernard came when I was in High School and we all had to watch the 1982 version of An Inspector Calls for a class and take notes and discuss it afterwards. In the drama Bernard plays the mysterious Inspector Goole who interrupts a wealthy families dinner party, and in the process of speaking with them manages to highlight the social injustice so prevalent at the time. I quite liked his performance but I was more focused on trying to pay attention to the overall story and take notes, rather than on studying his acting ability.
That all changed a few years after this when I saw Henry VIII And His Six Wives(1972), in which Bernard plays Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. I was really impressed by his performance and also by his remarkable physical resemblance to the real man.
As Cranmer in The Six Wives Of Henry VIII. Screenshots by me.
I loved his subtle performance and how he played Cranmer as a decent and moral man, all be it one who cannot bring himself to be brave and stand up to the King and his men out of fear for his own life. I loved his reaction shots, especially in the scene where Cranmer tries to console the distraught and frightened Catherine Howard(Lynn Frederick).I soon discovered this was his third time playing Cranmer, the first time having been in the 1970 miniseries The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, and the second time in an episode of Elizabeth R(1971). His performance is just as brilliant in these two series as it is in the film.
Bernard Hepton was born Francis Bernard Heptonstall, on the 19th of October, 1925. He was born in Bradford on the same street that JB Priestley had been born on. Bernard’s dad, Bernard Sr, was an electrician, while his mum Hilda came from a mill-working family. Bernard was short sighted which meant he was unable to serve during WW2, but he trained as an aircraft engineer and draughtsman during the war, while also working as a fire watcher.
Bernard trained to be an actor at the Bradford Civic Playhouse under its director Esme Church. He gained extensive experience as a stage actor in repertory in York. In 1952 he joined the Birmingham Rep, where its founder Barry Jackson became his second great acting mentor after Esme Church. Bernard also became proficient in arranging fight sequences, and he was invited to the Old Vic to arrange the fights for the 1953 production of Hamlet, which starred Richard Burton.
Bernard later took over as artistic director of the Birmingham Rep in 1957. He would also go on to briefly be the director of the Liverpool Rep in 1963, but he resigned after many of the productions were not well received because of their rather daring content. He also further ruffled feathers when he wrote that there should be six national theatres across Britain, rather than just the one, and that they should all receive equal funding as well.
As the Kommandant in Colditz. Image source IMDb.
In 1972 he was cast in the TV series Colditz. His performance in this has become my favourite from all his work. The series was based upon the memoirs of British officer Major Pat Reid, who was one of the few prisoners to successfully manage an escape from Colditz castle. The series focuses on the escape attempts by the prisoners of war held in Colditz from various allied countries, as well as focusing upon the German soldiers who are guarding them.
Bernard plays the Kommandant of the Colditz POW camp. The Kommandant may well be in an enemy uniform but he is no Nazi and hates them with a passion, he is a decent man who runs the camp in a firm but humane and fair way. Bernard is so good as a man conflicted between doing his duty to his country and doing the right and moral thing.
The WW2 connection continued on into his next big series, Secret Army. This was a joint production by the BBC and the Belgian National Broadcaster BRT, and the series focused upon a Belgian resistance group helping allied aircrew get back to their own countries and evade capture. Bernard plays cafe owner Albert Foiret, who supports the head of the resistance group, Lisa Colbert, in her brave work.
As Albert in Secret Army. Image source IMDb.
Many people best remember him for playing the Hungarian emigre Intelligence Officer, Toby Esterhase in Tinker,Tailor,Soldier,Spy and Smiley’s People. In the first series he leaves us in no doubt as to Toby’s talents and intellect, but you also get a feeling you are never seeing the real man behind the mask. There’s a sense Toby is burying his true self and identity.
With Alec Guinness in Smiley’s People. Screenshot by me.
In the second series it’s clear the mask has slipped and Bernard shows us more of the man beneath.Toby seems more comfortable with himself and with life in general. They’re two such great performances to watch and compare. I also love his chemistry with Alec Guinness and how Bernard makes it so obvious that Toby is both in awe of Smiley and more than a little afraid of him too.
Bernard worked steadily throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. I quite like his performance as the kindly Sir Thomas Bertram in the 1983 miniseries Mansfield Park. His last screen appearance was in the 2002 film The Baroness And The Pig.
He sadly passed away at the age of 92, on the 27th of July,2018. News of his death hit me hard because he had become such a favourite of mine. He’s left behind such a wonderful array of performances for us to enjoy. I highly recommend you check his series out if you’re not familiar with him. Thanks for everything, Bernard.